Tech group exploring the meaning of a robot

The Tech Policy Lab at the University of Washington are exploring what it means to be a robot, which has business, legal, insurance, and safety considerations.


The Tech Policy Lab at the University of Washington is chartered to enhance technology policy through research, education and thought leadership. They just finished putting together a series of workshops co-hosted with the White House to prepare for the future of artificial intelligence.

  • May 24, 2016: Legal and Governance Implications of Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, Wash.
  • June 7, 2016: Artificial Intelligence for Social Good in Washington, D.C.
  • June 28, 2016: Safety and Control for Artificial Intelligence in Pittsburgh, Pa.
  • July 7, 2016: The Social and Economic Implications of Artificial Intelligence Technologies in the Near-Term in New York City

Today's use of the term "robot" is regularly misused by the very people that set trends: the media and businesses in their marketing and software (and A.I.) as their products encroach on the traditional definitions offered by the International Federation of Robotics. The regularity with which this misuse is occuring indicates changes in the definition will be happening soon, particularly as software bots such as Amazon's Echo and Microsoft's Xiaoice become more ubiquitous.

Robohub held a roundtable to answer the same question. It was predicated on the assumption that having a precise definition is important to all of the stakeholders involved in making and using robotics. What they concluded is highlighted below:

Ask a roboticist and you'll likely get a dozen different responses. If we were to look at robotics as a set of enabling technologies (machine learning, internet of things, sensors, computation, hardware), we'd end up with nearly everything being a "robot": from your toaster to your home. Not to mention, technology is constantly changing over time, which can easily be forgotten. Instead of having a rigid, well-defined easy answer, it appears we're forced to accept the definition is fluid, depending on the purpose it serves. Defining what a robot is will be uniquely different if you're a lawyer, philosopher, researcher, or a company.

Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report. After selling his business and retiring from 25-plus years in computer direct marketing and materials, consulting to the Democratic National Committee, as well as major presidential, senatorial, congressional, mayoral campaigns and initiatives all across the U.S., Canada and internationally, he has energetically pursued a new career in researching and investing in robotics. This article originally appeared on The Robot Report. The Robot Report is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media,

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